Monday, April 24, 2017

April 23, 2017 - Luther and the Lord's Prayer, Part 1

So it’s been about 10 years since the beginning of the Reformation in 1517.  Luther and some of his cohorts have been traveling around parts of Germany and what they discover is that, although wherever Luther goes, he preaches his reforming message, he can’t be everywhere and not everyone is interpreting his writings in the same way.  They also discover that the movement is creating some confusion, people are keeping the parts of Catholicism they like while ignoring the parts of Protestantism that they don’t.  Remember, legalism is an easier message to understand.  “Do this and you will make God happy” makes for very simple religion.  “God is already happy with you,” is an uplifting message but creates grey areas in terms of practice.  As some dear friends have told me, “Pastor, if you keep telling people that they don’t have to do anything then nothing will get done around the church.”

It’s also noteworthy to mention that most religious education did not happen at church at this time.  Children did not go to Sunday school because there weren’t Sunday schools until the late 1700s in England and into the 1800s in the U.S..  Religious education happened in the household and generally it was the father’s job in German households to pass on the faith.

So in 1529, Luther published the Small Catechism as a tool to help teach children the basics of the Christian faith from a grace-centered perspective.  In some ways it is a “What every Christian should know” document and so covers the basics of Christian devotion:  The 10 Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Confession and Forgiveness and the Sacraments.  Some people might ask why it doesn’t put more focus on the Bible.  Remember that, although Luther helped make the Bible accessible by translating and encouraging it to be translated in common languages, most people didn’t have a Bible in their homes.  They were more available, but they were still big and expensive books that required a good level of literacy. 

So Lutherans have used the Catechism as a basic understanding of the Christian faith for about 500 years.  Many of you probably had to memorize it when you were younger.  I think the mistake that we have made with the catechism is that Luther intended it as an introduction and starting place for faith and we have often used it as a limit, saying, “Once I know this, I don’t need to know anymore.”  We have substituted learning the Catechism for living the faith.  The faith that Jesus calls us to is a way of life and a way of looking at life.  Luther provided the Catechism as a way of helping people enter this way of life, this divine/human relationship that is Christian faith.  It is a starting point; not an end point.

During the season of Easter, we are going look through the Small Catechism’s instruction on the Lord’s Prayer.  There are all sorts of scripture that Luther could have included as summary statements of faith.  He could have used more of the Sermon on the Mount as a summary of Jesus’ teaching.  He could have had us memorize parts of Paul’s letter to the Romans that led him to his rediscovery of a grace-centered understanding of faith. 

Keep in mind that Luther was writing for children, that he was trying to give a starting place.  What he chose as the focal points for the catechism represent different approaches to God.  He starts with the 10 commandments as a way of establishing a moral code, but also, in his definitions, expanding that code so that we might recognize how we fall short of it.  The 5th commandment, “You shall not murder,” is expanded beyond killing to say, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them an all of life’s needs.”  Luther is simply incorporating the style of interpretation that Jesus teaches in the Sermon on Mount so that, while I can say I have not killed anyone to my knowledge I also have to admit I have not lived up to that commandment.  The 10 Commandments offer a moral code and present God as judge before whom I will be found guilty.

He then moves to the Apostles’ Creed, which in not a biblical text, but rather the product of the early church trying to define what Christianity believes (as are all our creeds).  The Creed presents the salvation story as it describes Jesus and also God as Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier (one who makes us holy).  It is a great summary of the faith and with Luther’s explanations a great summary of the Lutheran understanding of faith, especially as he describes the work of the Holy Spirit, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.”  The problem with any kind of creed is that it tends to put God at a distance.  All of our creeds are products of academic debates with careful wordings that went through committees and councils.  They can be a bit like talking about ice cream without being able to taste it.  That sounds good but it would be better if I can experience it.

So then he moves to the Lord’s Prayer both because this is the Prayer that Jesus gives us as a model for prayer, but also because it allows us to taste the ice cream; it allows us to experience God in a personal way, not as the judge of the 10 commandments and not as the creator God far out in the universe of the Creed but as divine parent, Father.  We heard that today, “With these words God wants to attract us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father and we are truly his children.”  Now I don’t want to go too far into a whole inclusive language thing.  But I will say that the Bible is the product of a highly male-dominated culture as was Martin Luther.  If you are more comfortable addressing God as Mother, you can do that.  God can handle it.  If you are more comfortable addressing God as Parent, you can do that.  God can handle it (probably better than most traditional Lutherans can).

The point is that we are in the realm of the personal relationship.  Notice that there is still a sense that this is collective.  It is “Our” parent in heaven and not “My” parent in heaven.  Jesus always keeps it communal.  The neighbor is always there.  The temptation is to make things extremely personal and think that it is just about God and me, my faith, my journey, my walk.  Jesus always keeps pushing us to think about God and we.  Love God and love your neighbor.  If your neighbor has something against you, go and be reconciled and then come and make offerings to God.  When we are connected to God in faith we are always connected to something more, a church, a community or, at least, a neighbor.

Luther’s choices in crafting the Small Catechism also reflect a balance of images of God.  We need the God of the 10 Commandments who challenges us to change our lives; to stop hurting other people and starting helping other people because it is the right thing to do.  We need the God of the Apostles’ Creed who is big, awesome, distant, mysterious, transcendent, greater than the universe itself.  We need the God of the Lord’s Prayer who is personal, intimate, a loving parent.  God is all of those things and not exactly any one of them. 

God is the God who crafted the universe.  God is the God who died for us on the cross.  God is the God who rose from the dead and showed himself to a doubting disciple.  God is the God who gives us a way to live, forgives us when we fail to live up to it and gives us a promise of new life.  And God is the parent, the father, the mother, who love us deeply and earnestly, who hears us when we pray and rejoices when we realize that, in the words of Martin Luther, “God is truly our Father and we are truly his children.”

Monday, April 17, 2017

April 16, 2017 - Easter Sunday

More than any other, Matthew turns the resurrection into an event.  I’m not saying that it is not a major event in the other gospels.  It is just a much quieter happening in the other three.  In John, it is Mary Magdalene coming to the empty tomb, mistaking the risen Jesus for a gardener.  In Mark and Luke, angelic messengers give the initial message to the two Marys who have come to anoint his body.  Jesus doesn’t even make an appearance in the original ending of Mark.  The story just ends with the two women who have been given the message that “He is risen,” saying “nothing to nobody because they were afraid.”

                But Matthew sets the scene.  The passion story that we heard last week ends with a guard of soldiers camped out at the tomb keeping it secure lest Jesus’ followers sneak the body away.  They are there that Sunday morning when the earth quakes (as it did at the crucifixion, only in Matthew) and an angel descends dramatically from heaven, rolls the stone away and sits up, probably speaking the Latin version of “’Sup?”  And people are still terrified but there are more witnesses to the events, more Romans who will have to be hushed.  In the other gospels the resurrection blossoms slowly with messages and brief sightings of the risen Jesus.  But in Matthew the resurrection explodes on the scene with the angel doing its best deus ex machina impersonation.

                Now I have to talk a little more about the difference between the gospels.  Our tendency is to combine all the stories but in doing this we lose some of the nuance of the individual authors.  Some people don’t like it when I do this because it makes it sound like the authors were making things up.  I will just say that they were telling the story to the best of their ability as it was passed to them.  They were also writing to different audiences which affected how they wrote and what they emphasized, what they included and what they left out.  That being said, it is important to note that this is the only place in Matthew where a heavenly messenger makes an appearance to other people in this physical realm.  There is a mention of angels appearing after the temptation but that is Jesus alone, by himself.
                Up until now, in Matthew, all of the divine communication with other people happens via dream.  Joseph is told not to send the pregnant Mary away because an angel tells him in a dream.  The holy family is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt when Herod wants to murder the children around Bethlehem.  Pilate’s wife is told in a dream that the governor should have nothing to do with this innocent man.  But here, according to the story, an angel physically descends and perches on the stone of the empty tomb.

                I think this goes along with another detail that is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  At the moment of his death, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two.  This refers to the cloth curtain in the Jerusalem Temple that separated the room known as the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple.  The Holy of Holies was supposed to be the most sacred point in the world.  At one point, it was the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.  It was the place where the divine and human intersected.  Only one person, the high priest, entered that room and only one time each year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The idea was that God’s holiness was simply too powerful for people to handle, that there needed to be some separation or we would be overwhelmed by holiness. 

                But now the curtain of the Temple has been torn in two and the divine has entered the human world in a new way.  God is no longer on the outside of the snowglobe looking in, but has come among us.  In his death on the cross, Jesus ushers in the kingdom of God.  That’s what he kept saying, “The kingdom of heaven is among you.  The kingdom of God has come near.”  Those seemed like fine words when he was walking around with his disciples, maybe a political message about being the Messiah.  But now an angel of the Lord is sitting on the stone of an empty tomb and proclaiming the resurrection.  Now the risen Jesus is appearing to two Marys on the road as they rush to share the news.

                Now the kingdom of heaven is among us and we have seen it and touched it and knelt at its feet.  And here we are, the people of God, gathering to remember.  We gather to remember because it is easy to forget that the kingdom is among us.  It is easy to forget in a time of chemical weapons and cruise missiles, of school shootings and hijacked trucks, of Palm Sunday bombs and refugees seeking a way to put terror behind them.  It is also easy to forget in the day to day stresses of life: bodies that don’t work as well as they used to, kids that need shuttling to yet another event, the things on the bottom of your to-do list that refuse to be crossed off and done.  We forget that the holy is among us, that we are living in the kingdom of God.

                How do we remind ourselves?  The contemplative strain of the Christian tradition stops everything and tries to sit, fully aware of the kingdom of God, of the holiness that is with us.  Another strain of Christianity, the active strain, tries to connect to that kingdom through acts of love in the world around us.  Another strain of Christianity, the personal strain, seeks to connect to that kingdom through personal disciplines like prayer and study and giving.  But first and foremost, we gather as communities on Sunday mornings to remember the resurrection.  Jesus didn’t tell us to change the holy day from Saturday to Sunday.  The church did that early on as a way to connect itself regularly to this good news.  Every Sunday is Easter Sunday.  Every Sunday the angel takes his seat on the stone and proclaims, “Jesus is not here; for he has been raised.”

                So you made it here this morning for your reminder and good for you.  But there is a whole world out there that has forgotten, some whom have never heard the story and some who have set it aside as irrelevant.  But this story is for everyone; the resurrection is for everyone; Jesus died and rose for everyone, not just those who seem to get it or grew up with it or invite it into their lives.  Jesus died and rose for everyone, period.  The holy is at loose in the world for everyone, not just a few.

                But we forget.  Everyone forgets.  Everyone needs to be reminded and this community gets to be the beautiful reminder.  We need to remind ourselves which is why we worship and pray and read and sit in contemplation of the holy.  We need to remind ourselves so we can go out and be the living reminder for the world around us.  We need to go out and live as though we were living in the kingdom of heaven right now. 

                The greatest proof of the resurrection that we can give is not by simply telling the story; it is living lives transformed by the good news.  I don’t have a picture of the angel sitting on the stone.  I don’t have a selfie with the risen Jesus.  But I can live a life that shares peace and love and hope with the world.  I can seek to live a life that shares the values and promise of the kingdom of heaven.  I can seek to live a life that points toward the cross and toward the empty tomb.  The angel tells the women at the tomb that Jesus is not there, that he has been raised, that he is out in the world and they meet him on the road.  That is where we need to be, out in the world, on the road, sharing the good news that “Alleluia.  Jesus is risen.”

April 14, 2017 - Good Friday

I have run the Falmouth Road Race a couple of times and have been struck by the amount of time, effort and money that goes into the finish line.  The finish is line is where awards will be handed out.  It is also where thirsty runners can get a cold bottle of water.  It is a place where hungry runners can get a free hot dog.  I don’t even like hot dogs that much but there is something about the free one that drives everyone into line for it.  You can also get goodies from different sponsors: power bars and frozen yogurts.  Of course most running gear has very little room for storage so it’s lots of sweaty runners walking around with armfuls of loot.  Most importantly, the finish line says that you can stop running now; that the race if over. 

                And once you stop, very quickly you forget what you just went through.  You forget tired legs and heavy breathing.  You forget the fear that you are not going to make it, that you drank too little or too much on the way.  You forget the many moments of wondering why I would want to run a 7-mile race in the August heat.  You forget it.  Now it’s over.  Have a hot dog.

                So Easter is kind of like our finish line in Holy Week.  We are going to transform the sanctuary from this plain, dim space to white lilies and joyous music.  We are going to celebrate that Jesus crosses the finish line of the most difficult and painful race in history.  And in our celebrations, we will quickly forget the race.  Don’t look backwards.  We have crossed the finish line.

                Yet tonight we take time to remember the race itself: the passion, the betrayal, the denial, the pain, the crucifixion, the death of Jesus.  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, for most of the history of the Lutheran Church, Good Friday was seen as the holiest day of the calendar.  Certainly we celebrated Easter, but it was this night where the big crowds would come, felt obligated to come.  It was this night where we proclaimed that the great victory was won.  Jesus defeated sin, death and evil on the  cross on Friday.  We have a finish line on Sunday because Jesus ran this race on Friday.

                Over time, we moved toward a more traditional liturgical celebration of Holy Week, so Good Friday was seen as part of the grand movement of the three days and Easter, not quite sticking out as much in our celebration.  The problem with over-emphasizing Good Friday is that the race never finishes.  You are always dwelling in the struggle; always reminded of your imperfections; always confronted with your sins that nail Jesus to the cross.  Lutherans would say that some of this reflection is necessary to the faith.  As I have said before, good and perfect people don’t need the cross.  So we need moments of confession that remind us of our need.  We need moments that point us toward the race so that we can marvel at what Jesus did in it while acknowledging our part in making Jesus run it.

                In this day, age and culture, it is rare that people are found dwelling too deeply in Good Friday.  It is much more likely that folks will want to skip to Easter Sunday and meet Jesus at the finish line.  Cheer him on at the end of race, ignoring that an empty tomb implies the need for a tomb, that rising from the dead means being put to death.  And I think there are deep problems here.  If you never pay real attention to the cross, never confront your sins and mistakes, you can never leave them behind.  If you never see the body in the tomb, it is much harder to see the empty tomb as something that matters.  You end up much focused on questions of how the resurrection happened or if the resurrection happened as the gospels present it than the deeper question of why the resurrection happened.

                But more importantly, Jesus doesn’t just call us to meet him at the finish line.  He challenges us to join him in the race itself.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  The stories of Jesus’ first disciples by no means have happy endings in and of themselves.  They suffered.  There were rejected.  They were imprisoned.  They were killed for running the race with Jesus.  The stories of Peter and Paul, Stephen and Thomas are not happy.  The stories of Felicity and Perpetua and Lucia and many others in the early church; the stories of Dietrich and Oscar and Martin in the last century all end in tragedy.  Yet they could run the race because Christ had shown them the finish line.

                Now I am not saying that we all need to go out and martyr ourselves, but I will say that visions of Christianity that end with an upper-middle class, American lifestyle as the norm, what faithful living looks like, are missing something vital.  If faithful living means living the way I wanted to live in the first place just without as many bumps in the road, there is something missing.  There is a cross-shaped hole in the midst of good intentions.  Because Jesus doesn’t just call us to celebrate him; Jesus calls us to follow him.

                And the path that Jesus walks leads him to this race, this moment, this cross, this death.   The path that Jesus walks leads to walking with those in poverty.   The path that Jesus walks has him stand against legalistic religion and overblown authority.  The path that Jesus walks upsets people, frustrates and angers them as he challenges long-held assumptions.  The path that Jesus walks chooses love over hate, connection over division, acceptance over rejection.  Yet the path that Jesus walks also leads him to be hated, to cause division and to be rejected.

                It is not an easy race nor is it always a joyful  race, yet is also the race that leads to the finish line of Easter.  Jesus doesn’t just want us to watch him cross the finish line.  He wants us to follow him on the race so we can finally cross it as well.  Tonight we remember that race, that cross and that death.   Tonight we remember the true victory that was won on the cross.

April 13, 2017 - Maundy Thursday

I am in many ways a child of the self-esteem movement.  Fortunately it was just starting when I was in elementary school in the 1970s and hadn’t become entrenched in a slew of participation ribbons.  I probably had a few teachers who gave out too many gold stars or “Good job!” stickers.  There was certainly a difference between the older teachers who called a “C” a “C” and teachers who tended to inflate our grades, saving themselves both disappointed children and complaining parents. 

                However the self-esteem movement has greatly affected succeeding generations and our society as a whole.  It has certainly affected life in the church.  We pastors did not always preach from the pulpit with a feel-good message that “God loves you just the way you are.”  I firmly believe that sentiment but believe it needs to be coupled with the idea that “God hopes for you to grow from where you are.”  You are not loved because you have everything right and all together; you are loved in spite of your shortcomings and mistakes. You are set free to grow toward God.

                One of the places where the self-esteem idea has deeply affected our society is in the loss of the Christian virtue of humility.  It is hard to be humble when everyone tells you that you are doing a great job; that the most important task is simply showing up (and look at you! You showed up!).  The Lutheran tradition comes from a theological heritage that says that you shouldn’t feel that great about yourself.  Augustine and then Luther talked about the human propensity toward sin.  We have free will, but we seem wired to choose things that turn us away from God.  Even the good that we do is marred by self-indulgence and self-gratification.  I don’t serve others in order to serve God; I do it because it makes me feel good or makes people like me so later I can cash in on that favor.

                Now you may not like that characterization.  I struggle with it when I read it in Luther and I remember some debate about it when we were studying Luther in seminary.  We all knew people whom we felt were genuinely good people.  When you look back in history and read about the Holocaust or, in my era, learning about the abuses that happened in the name of the apartheid system in South Africa and when you are a nice, Lutheran kid from the Midwest it is hard to look at yourself and quote Psalm 22 saying, “I’m a worm and not a man.”  I’m not going to stand up and tout my greatness (after all, I am a nice kid from the Midwest), but I’m not that bad.  Am I?  There are so many people who have done so much worse.

                A solid sense of humility is, even being able to say that I am not that bad, I am also able to say that I am imperfect.  I have room to grow in faith.  I am not Jesus.  Luther believed that one of the primary reasons for the scriptures is to drive us to Christ.  We might read and discover how we fall short of perfection.  I may not have killed anyone but I have certainly ignored more than a few people in need and cannot say that I have truly loved my enemies.  I may not have caused much intentional harm but I haven’t done a whole lot to prevent others from harm.  And while Jesus tells us not to store up treasures on earth, I sure do like some of the stuff I have.

                Now I still may not feel like a worm and not a man as the old fire and brimstone preachers may have wanted, but I know what they were trying to do.  They were trying to bring people to a place where they saw the need for Jesus.  And this represents a major shift in the message of the church between ancient and modern.  If you listen to sermons today about how we relate to Jesus, the underlying message is often, “Life is so much better with Jesus.”  The self-esteem flavor has crept in.  You were already great but you can be better with Jesus.  This is much different from the ancient church’s message that, “Life is not life without Jesus,” or more starkly, “Life without Jesus is death.”

                Often in our modern context, the Jesus story seems nice.  In the ancient church, the Jesus story was necessary.  That comes back to humility, because it is only from a place of humility that we can recognize the need for the Jesus story.  The next few days don’t make any sense if we don’t need them.  They will just come across as a bunch of empty ceremony.  It is only from a place of humility that Christ’s commandment, the mandate for which this Maundy Thursday is named, makes sense.  Love one another which means respect one another which means rely on one another which means serve one another which means need one another.   It is only from a place of humility that the meal we remember and take part in this night and every Sunday makes sense, not as a ritual action but as a moment where God fills the empty places in our lives, where our host gives us something that we need.  It is only from a place of humility that we can be given a promise of forgiveness and know that it is something that we need to hear.

                Now I am not sure how to balance the two ideas.  I don’t think I can in good conscience go back to preaching the Jonathan Edwards image of sinners in the hands of an angry God, only kept from the fires of hell by the action of Jesus.  Not only is it a problematic image of God but it creates an exclusivity that makes interfaith discussion difficult.  But I also think we have lost something important if Jesus is mostly a nice man with a nice story who makes our lives better like some divine personal trainer or self-help guru.  We need to be humble enough to recognize our need for this story, for the meal, for the forgiveness, for the community of faith. 

                One possible solution goes back to Martin Luther.  In January of 1546, Luther died of a heart attack in Eisleben, Germany.  In his pocket was a sheet of paper with a number of sentences, perhaps starting ideas for more writing.  The final sentence, what many consider to represent his last message, was, “We are beggars.  This is true.”  A life in Christ is nice and it often does make our lives better in some ways, but even if we have found joy and strength in that faith, it shouldn’t puff us up as though we have figured everything out.  It shouldn’t give us license to dismiss the beliefs of others as though we had nothing to learn.  It shouldn’t bring us to point that we forget that we are always on the receiving end of a gift we have not earned.

                That’s why the new commandment is a challenge.  It is not “Love one another as you see fit” or “Love one another if the other loves you.”  It is “Love one another as I have loved you.”  And Jesus loves us without us loving him back.  He loves us without us loving him first.  He loves us without us loving him equally.   He loves us as a gift because of who he is and in spite of who we are.  Tomorrow at noon at the Methodist church and tomorrow evening here, we will explore the depths of that love. 

                So carry that commandment out tonight and hold it gingerly, because it is powerful.  Carry it with you in humility through Good Friday and let it drive you toward the cross of Christ.  Carry it with you toward Easter, with its promise of new life and second chances to love again.  “I give you a new commandment,” says Jesus, “that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

April 2, 2017 - For the Sake of Christ

We are justified by grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ.  For the sake of Christ.  That is, because of Christ’s action.  Some years ago when I was in college I remember being in conversation with a friend about Christianity.  My friend Eric was an atheist, not the quiet kind that just stay away but the kind that likes to argue and he knew that I was active in church and he knew that I was trying to make sense of what I was doing there, as I still am.  So it was Easter and I was talking about the stuff we did on Easter and Eric said something like, “But why do you worship a God who loses?”  I said, “Easter is celebrating the victory.  Jesus rises from the dead.”  “Yeah but he had to rise from the dead because he let people kill him.  Wouldn’t it have been better for him just to be powerful?  Wouldn’t faith be easier if Jesus just declared himself King of the World?” 

                I didn’t have a great way to answer him other than to say that that’s not our story.  But the truth is that it is often how we want our story to be.  Most ancient religions can be boiled down to trying to figure out whose gods are best and strongest.  Even ancient Israel praises God as Lord of hosts, Yahweh the divine warrior who is above all gods.  If you remember your Bible stories, in the story of the 10 plagues that lead to Passover, the first two plagues, water turning to blood and frogs on the land, didn’t persuade Pharaoh because his magicians could do something similar.  It wasn’t until God started producing plagues that were better than what the Egyptian gods could produce that Pharaoh started paying more attention.

                We often want to be on the winning team and our definition of winning has to do with what we expect power and victory to look like.  Several times in the gospels, the disciples assume that following Jesus has to do with following the road to power.  It’s why Peter wanted to build shelters on the mountain of the transfiguration.  It’s why James and John ask to sit at his right and left in his glory.  It’s why the crowds line the streets as he enters Jerusalem.  The new king is coming to declare power and to set Israel free.

                I know now that part of the reason I didn’t have a great answer for my friend was because I was operating with a religious understanding that is common, especially in American religion, what Lutherans would call a theology of glory.  Theologies of glory come in many different forms but basically boil down to, “We’re the best.”  They boil down to sound bites that may seem familiar in our current political context.  We’ve got the best God.  Our God is the best.  Our worship is tremendous.  It’s the right way.  We’ve got the best religion with best results.  And that is an attractive proposition to offer people, that by choosing Christianity you are choosing the winning team.

                The problem with it is that you end simply comparing yourselves to other religions that can make similar claims of being better and having good results.  So then you end up with religious wars and fighting because there can’t be two religions that are the best.

                Enter Martin Luther who in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 described the idea of a theology of the cross, saying “he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”  What this means is that the cross is the center for Lutheran Christianity.  You might say that you already knew that but most of us actually see the resurrection as the center of the Christian good news.  The cross is important because it allows the victory of the resurrection to happen.

                Luther would say that the cross is itself the victory.  The resurrection is important and worthy of celebration in that it points to the ultimate power and victory of the cross.  This is why for most of the existence of the Lutheran tradition, Good Friday was seen as the holiest day of the year.  Those of you who might be classical music buffs, the various Passions written by Bach and others were composed to be performed on Good Friday as the central worship service of Holy Week.

                So a theology of the cross is one that sees the greatest instance of God’s power in what seems to be the greatest moment of Christ’s weakness.  Years earlier, the apostle Paul had recognized the tension, the absurdity in this idea.  He wrote to the church in Corinth, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

                This is the unique point within the Christian vision.  Every religious tradition that has a deity will claim that it is great, that their god is good and awesome and wondrous and powerful.  The Christian story celebrates a God who leaves power behind, who embraces suffering, who knows pain, who shows weakness, who even experiences death.  And in embracing suffering and knowing pain and showing weakness and experiencing death on the cross, he transforms them.  So weakness becomes strength.  Death becomes life.  Loss becomes victory.

                And the same can be said for the guilt and shame and sin which we experience and carry out.  When we are turned to Christ in faith, they are also taken and not just removed but transformed.  These things that were leading us toward death become a means to encounter the cross which then becomes a source of life.  This is why Luther would write things like “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”  To be clear he was not advocating willful sinfulness, but was calling people to acknowledge that they were sinners and then to trust in Christ more deeply, to turn toward the cross in hope and trust.

                This kind of language can be uncomfortable.  We like to think that we just aren’t that bad, that if we really try hard we can be good people.  If we really try hard we can please God.  Or we like to label ourselves as good people because here we are at church and that is where good people go.   But here’s the thing.  Good people don’t need the cross.  Righteous people don’t need the cross.  The story of the crucifixion makes no sense if you aren’t that bad, if you aren’t broken, if you don’t know suffering.  And it may be that Luther’s theology is a reflection of the time in which he lived, in which suffering and death were a common occurrence, where classmates were lost to the plague, where by some estimates half of the children in an area were dead by age 10.  Maybe in that context it was easier to trust a suffering God, one who conquered death by dying, where one could look at a dying Messiah and find hope for life.

                In our world it may be tempting to see the cross as the vehicle that gets us to the empty tomb, the trumpets and the lilies.  It may be a more joyful experience to praise an awesome God who wants to bless us with good things.  Yet the message and the power of the cross remain.  It reminds us that we do make mistakes and sin in thought, word and deed.  It reminds us that our world is broken, that there is evil and not just in the dark basements of horror movies and Law and Order, but in the way we structure our society, the way we treat one another or ignore one another.   It reminds us that if we are good, it is because Jesus has transformed evil into good; and if we are alive, it is because Jesus has transformed death into life. 

                We are justified, (restored in relationship with God), by grace (a gift of a loving God), through faith (being turned toward that God in trust), apart from works (even though we really want it to be our works), for the sake of Christ (because in the cross, our hatred becomes God’s love, pain becomes joy, and death becomes new life.)